Recently my sister gave my wife Katrina and me few puzzles her children had outgrown. One of them is a wooden “sound puzzle.” Here’s what it looks like:
The child pulls out all the animal pieces and when they put each one back over the matching animal, it makes the sound for that animal. When you fit the bird piece into the bird slot, the sensor activates and it chirps. The cat meows. The dark barks. The child has fun and learns at the same time. That’s the idea.
When our 17-month-old daughter Kate started playing with the puzzle, she instantly loved it. It was great. But then the puzzle started messing with me.
A couple weeks ago, I came home late and Katrina was upstairs. I closed the front door, walked past Kate’s toys in the living room and suddenly heard “ROWF! ROWF! ROWF!” It scared the crap out of me. A second later, I realized it was just the animal puzzle.
Over the next several days, it kept making noises by itself—sometimes it would chirp, sometimes it would meow, sometimes it would bark. Eventually the puzzle settled on the bullfrog sound. Whenever I’d walk in the room, it would croak. Loudly.
One night, as we were getting ready for bed, Katrina said, “That animal puzzle keeps making noises when I’m near it.”
I said, “It’s been doing that to me too. Every time I’m in the living room, it makes the bullfrog noise.”
“For me, it’s the guinea pig,” she replied.
“You always get the same animal too?”
“Yeah. And just when I think it’s not going to happen – it happens.” She paused for a few seconds and added, “I wonder if it’s your dad trying to communicate with us.”
My dad passed away six years ago and whenever either of us experiences what could be paranormal activity—lights turning on by themselves, objects moving by themselves, etc.—Katrina suggests that it might be my dad letting us know he’s around. While I believe in ghosts, I don’t think my dad would try to communicate through a kid’s puzzle.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“You never know. It’s certainly interesting that the puzzle makes a specific noise for each of us.”
As Katrina finished putting her clothes in the dresser, we were both silent. Then she turned and said, “Did you turn off the front light?”
“I think so.”
“Could you go check?”
“Okay,” I said. “But if the puzzle makes the frog noise while I’m down there, that would be a little too freaky.”
As I walked downstairs, I yelled “Hey Puzzle!” I wanted to catch it off guard.
I walked past the living room to the front door and opened it. The front light was on, so I turned it off. Then I turned around and glanced over at Kate’s little table. Sitting silently on the table in the dark corner of the room was the puzzle. It looked ominous. I walked away and was near the foot of the stairs when the puzzle let out a loud “CROOOAAK! CROOOAAK! CROOOAAK!”
I ran up the stairs faster than usual. The stupid puzzle was messing with my head.
When I got to bed, Katrina came up with a more plausible theory about the puzzle: perhaps the sensors are light sensitive. This theory was corroborated the next day by my brother-in-law, Sean.
“The puzzle is definitely light sensitive,” Sean said. “It would meow at me. It’s a little freaky.”
“Yeah, it is.” I said. “For me, it always makes the bullfrog noise.”
“Really?” Sean said. “It’s always the bullfrog?”
“Yeah. It just did it last night.” I decided not to mention the part about me running upstairs like a little girl.
Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the puzzle was silent. No croaking, no barking, no meowing—nothing. Then early this morning, as I walked into the kitchen to make coffee, I heard what sounded like an indignant mouse. “SQUEAK! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!” Even though I knew why it was making the noise, it still was a little creepy.
It could be worse, though. At least it's not a talking Elmo doll that makes death threats.
When I was looking for a job several years ago, I registered with a temp agency. A couple weeks later, they called with my first assignment.
“I have a filing job available,” a woman told me. “It’s for a company downtown. Are you interested?”
I don't like filing. I guess no one really enjoys filing but I especially can't stand it. And I'm not even very good at it. It’s a mundane task, so I eventually get bored, lose focus, and the next thing you know it’s “Who put the Advanced Textiles invoice in the Advanced Engineering folder?”
“Sure, I’ll take the job,” I said to the woman. “When does it start?”
The next morning, I walked into a large office building in downtown San Francisco. I don’t remember the name of the company but they took up four floors of the office building. They were huge. I got to the lobby and told the receptionist, “I’m here for the temporary position.”
A couple minutes later, a plain-looking woman walked into the lobby. As we shook hands, she said, “I’m Glenda.” Glenda’s handshake was firm and she was all business. All three and a half feet of her.
Glenda was a “little person.” The top of her head was only a couple inches above my belly button. It was the closest I’d been to a little person and I found her fascinating.
“Follow me,” Glenda said in her semi-squeaky voice, and we walked to the elevator, which we took down to the enormous Accounting department. She led me to the kitchen and said, “The coffee is here and the mugs are in the cupboard over there.”
Meanwhile, I was thinking: That cupboard is pretty high. How does Glenda reach the mugs? She must use a stepstool. Or maybe she has her own mug and washes it herself. But how can she reach the sink? Even on her tiptoes it would be hard for her to turn on the---
“Hello?” Glenda said. “I said do you drink coffee?”
“Yes. Coffee. I like it.” So far, I could tell I wasn’t impressing Glenda.
Along with being a little person, Glenda had a lazy eye. As she began describing the job, I tried to keep eye contact with the eye that was looking at me, but my mind began to wander.
How does Glenda open the top drawer of that filing cabinet? Maybe she can open it but she definitely can’t see what’s inside. Not without a step stool. There should be step stools all around the office for Glenda, but I don’t see any. She probably has her own step stool that she carries around the office when she---
“So that’s the job. Any questions?” One of Glenda’s eyes was looking at me expectantly. The other one was looking out the window.
I had missed about 90% of what she had just said. I only remembered something about groups of numbers and making photocopies. I had to get Glenda to explain the entire job again, without looking like an idiot.
“Could you...go over it more time,” I said. “I want to make sure I have it right.”
Glenda sighed and explained the job again. She described everything slowly and loudly, with big, sweeping gestures. She was clearly frustrated with me, but she looked so cute waving her little arms and pointing her little fingers.
“Each piece of paper in this cabinet has a list of numbers on it. See?” Glenda took out a pink sheet and pointed to a group of numbers—each one eight or nine digits long—at the top of the page. “You need to match each PINK sheet with its corresponding document in the cabinet over there.” Glenda pointed to another cabinet across the room. “Those sheets are YELLOW and each one has a group of numbers, just like this one. You need to MATCH them up. Got it?”
“After you match them up, make a photocopy of both documents, staple the copies together and put them in a pile on this table.”
“Then put the originals back in their respective cabinets—in the appropriate client folders.” Glenda smacked the side of the cabinet as she said those last three words.
“Sure,” I said.
“They have to be put back in the appropriate client folders. Very important.”
“Yes, of course. Got it.”
“Seriously, don’t mess it up. I spent months organizing these files,” Glenda said, and then she waddled away.
A thought immediately crossed my mind: I am SO going to mess this up.
As I began working, I had another thought. The best way to succeed at this is to go SLOWLY and stay focused. No need to go super fast. No need to prove anything. I just need to avoid screwing up. Slow but accurate. Slow but accurate. Slow but--
“That’s IT? That’s all you’ve done?” About 30 minutes had passed and Glenda was checking on my work. “Please tell me you’ve done more than this.”
I looked down at my pile of work, which consisted of two stapled matches. “No, that’s pretty much it,” I said.
“What’s taking you so long?” Apparently Glenda was a micro-manager. In more ways than one.
Before I could answer, she said, “Well, I’m sure you’ll pick up the pace.” I caught a few people peeking up from their cubicles to check out the stupid temp.
Since my “slow but accurate” strategy wasn’t cutting it, I made an effort to go faster. Matching up groups of numbers written in 8-point font, while trying to keep everything in perfect order was too much for me. I was going faster at the expense of accuracy. The wheels were coming off and this had to stop. I walked over to Glenda’s office.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to get someone else to finish this job,” I said.
Glenda’s eyes widened with concern. “What’s wrong?”
Filing is wrong. I’m wrong. Everything about this job assignment is wrong.
“I’m just not a good fit for this,” I said.
“That’s okay! That’s okay! You’ll get the hang of it!” Glenda’s semi-squeaky voice suddenly became full-fledged squeaky.
“I think it’s best that you get someone who’s more efficient. I have the agency’s number – I’ll call and ask them to send someone else.”
“Oompa, loompa, doopity doo. I have a telephone you can use.”
Okay, Glenda didn’t really say that but she did let me borrow her phone. I knew the temp agency would never call me again after bailing on this job and I didn’t know if I’d find work somewhere else. That was unsettling to think about, but as I walked out of the building, I knew I had made the right decision.
I also knew that when Glenda went back to look at my work, she would discover that the stupid temp messed up her files. I envisioned her shaking her tiny fist and yelling “Noooooooo,” her voice reaching a whole new level of squeakiness. I was glad I wouldn’t be around to see that.
In less than two hours, I screwed up files that had been painstakingly organized by an anal-retentive midget with a lazy eye. That’s nothing to be proud of but it makes for a good story.